Genetic modification of livestock just took a turn for the downright weird.
Chinese scientists have announced that they have altered cows to produce milk more similar to human breastmilk. They claim to have introduced human genes into a herd of 300 cows that will cause the cows’ milk to have much more “human” milk properties.
They hope the research, which the scientists claim is backed by a “major biotechnology company”, would lead to mass-produced “breastmilk” that could even be sold in supermarkets to replace “formula” as an alternative to actual breastmilk. The milk from the modified cows was found to contain several proteins specific to human milk as well as having a higher milk fat content more akin to that of breastmilk.
More fuel on the fire
The debate over how women and families choose to feed their babies is fractious, with those on the pro-breastfeeding side pointing out that by far the most nutritionally optimal food for human babies is human milk – and it’s got a huge benefit in that it’s completely free.
Western society, however, is often sqeamish at the sight of a breastfeeding mother (despite the fact that we seem to be OK with the sight of breasts at any other time) and generally does not provide adequate support for women who choose to breastfeed.
Is it wise to use genetics to do this?
A more nutritionally balanced breastmilk substitute would certainly be welcomed by many. However, genetically modifying cows to provide that substitute is troubling.
How safe is this “milk”? Have the claims that the milk is similar to breastmilk been proven? What does the process of genetic modification do to the cow? Given that previous attempts to breed genetically modified animals have resulted in high rates of mortality, what are the ethical implications in doing this kind of work on another species – especially when women are perfectly capable of feeding their children with their own milk?
The scientists say it would be at least 10 years before a cow-produced breastmilk substitute could hit the market.
By Dohduhdah (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons